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The Long Lives of Trees

Justin Evertson, "Simply Trees" from the Nebraska Forest Service

      Some trees can live a long time--a very long time--thousands of years in fact. This seems especially remarkable considering that for most trees, the very thin layer of living tissues just under the bark (the cambium) is put down new every year. A tree more or less regrows itself every year while clinging to the scaffolding of its old wood. And just imagine all the threats an old tree has dealt with since its sprouting: storms, wind, droughts, floods, heat, cold, fires, animals, hungry insects, diseases and of course people. The likelihood that any one seed might germinate, grow and then survive for millennia is almost impossibly small. And yet we have many long-lived trees across the planet that give testimony to their tenacity and adaptability.

            Defining old trees is not quite as simple as it might first appear. Generally people think of old trees as those big, often gnarled trees with a single trunk--such as old oaks, pines or redwoods. Such trees are dated through dendrochronology, the counting of annual growth rings.  Perhaps the best known of these individual old trees (at least in North America) are the ancient bristlecone pines that grow in the White Mountains along the California-Nevada border. Some specimens have been dated to be well over 5,000 years old; they were growing before the Egyptians built their pyramids.
     Interestingly, some clonal tree species such as aspen are actually longer-lived organisms than the oldest individual trees. Such species typically have many short-lived trunks supported by a wide-spreading, long-lived root system. Individual trunks may be lost to weather extremes, disease or fire, but the organism lives on by regularly re-sprouting new trunks (trees). Since dendrochronology can’t be used to date these trees, other methods such as radio carbon dating are often used. Incredibly, the Pando grove of quaking aspen in Utah is thought to be at least 80,000 years old. This massive organism has 40,000 stems (trunks), covers more than 106 acres and is estimated to weigh 5,900 tons!
     Surprisingly, wind-swept and grass-covered (now farm-covered) Nebraska is home to some very old trees--trees that predate European settlement and the founding of the state itself. In the Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge of the west, some ponderosa pines have been dated to be at least 400 years old. Even more impressive are some Rocky Mountain junipers proven to be over 700 years old. These trees have survived incredible weather extremes including mega-droughts that made the “Dust Bowl” seem tame. Talk about survivors.
     In eastern Nebraska, many massive oaks are hundreds of years old. A specimen in Ponca State Park called the Wolf Oak was core-dated to 1644, making it 132 years older than the United States itself. Some tree experts speculate that some of our native oaks may actually be over 1,000 years old. These are trees that were logged after settlement, but which have since re-sprouted. Thus the trunks may be only 150 years old, but the organism itself is much older.
     Big trees can be very old. The General Sherman Giant Sequoia in California is nearly 250 feet high and is the third most massive tree in the world, with a trunk volume of more than 45,000 cubic feet. It is also more than 3,200 years old. However, just because a tree is big doesn’t mean it’s old. Fast-growing species such as cottonwood, elm, silver maple, silver poplar and sycamore can become quite massive in just a few decades. For example a cottonwood planted in 1972 in Gilman Park in Pierce is now more than 70 feet high with a trunk circumference over 20 feet. Conversely, small trees can actually be very old. The bristlecone pines mentioned earlier are rarely taller than 30 feet.
     Finally, thinking beyond individual trees, some species themselves are incredibly ancient. The fossil record reveals pines, redwoods, sycamores, sweetgums, maples and other species dating back millions of years, more or less as they exist today. One species in particular, the ginkgo, is truly a relic, as it has existed relatively unchanged since the age of dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago. The ginkgo is considered to be native to China, but since fossil leaves dating back millions of years have been found in Nebraska, perhaps we can call it native here as well.
     Let’s face it: trees are incredible. Many are older than our most ancient structures. Some are older than human civilization itself. If they could talk, what a story they would tell.